Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tobias Wolff: "Powder"

Yesterday I received a copy of The Night in Question, a collection of short stories by Tobias Wolff. I've read this before, but decided I should own a copy, since Mr. Wolff is (blush) my favorite writer of short fiction. I admire, among other things, his ability to keep short fiction short. In this collection, "Powder," at four pages, and "Bullet in the Brain," at six, are among the best short-shorts I've ever read.

"Powder" is a straightforward story about an adolescent boy (the pov character) and his father on a ski trip. The parents are separated or divorced; the father has promised to have the boy back to his mother in time for Christmas Eve dinner. But the father tarries, deciding to get in a few more runs, and by the time they set off, the mountain road they must take is closed and guarded by a state trooper. Eventually the trooper leaves his post and the father decides to risk the snow-covered road.

In this story, everything seems to point to disaster. The narrator (an older version of the boy) consistently conveys a sense of worry, at first only that he will be late for Christmas Eve dinner (which has added importance because the father wants to win back the favor of his wife and is screwing this up), but later we fret about their physical well-being. The father sternly warns the boy against such foolhardy behavior. Disaster looms. Yet the boy, who is so tightly wired that he numbers his clothes hangers, is finally able to relax, to trust his father, to accept his fate and enjoy the journey. "If you haven't driven fresh powder," he says at the end, "you haven't driven."

As with many Wolff stories, signposts of "craft" are not so readily extracted from this piece. There are no tricks. Wolff follows a traditional path: he creates an empathetic protagonist (two, really); he gives the characters a clear goal; a problem arises from a character trait; the protagonists suffer a setback; they overcome the setback and the primary protagonist grows, or at least learns something. And all in four pages! What Wolff doesn't do is burden the story with flashbacks or a single word of backstory beyond what is required. He gets to the point quickly without ever making the reader feel rushed. There's even time left at the end for a little protagonistic reflection.

This story is really about the father, and that's the key. The story begins:
Just before Christmas my father took me skiing at Mount Baker. He'd had to fight for the privilege of my company, because my mother was still angry with him for sneaking me into a nightclub during his last visit, to see Thelonius Monk.

What a dad! Not only does he take his son skiing, he fights for the privilege, and this after sneaking the kid into a jazz club. Who wouldn't want this guy for a father? But we also recognize that he is a risk-taker, and we are concerned. The rest of the story echoes this first paragraph. It's all right there.